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Haggerty: Tennis Growth Part of Industry Support

July 22, 2009 07:00 AM
By David A. Haggerty, USTA Board of Directors, Vice President; President and CEO, HEAD USA

For a sport that's been questioned about its longevity in the past, tennis shows remarkable vitality.

If you've recently waited longer to find an open court at your local park or public tennis facility, it's because, by multiple measures, tennis is the fastest-growing traditional sport in the U.S. It has grown 43 percent between 2000 and 2008, including total participation of 27 million players. Coupled with the strong five-year growth numbers in industry sales (ball shipments up 16.2 percent from 2003 to 2008, junior racquets shipments up 88 percent and total racquet shipments up 44 percent), the numbers reflect health across the sport.

Unlike other traditional sports, the tennis industry has pulled together multiple equipment manufacturers, its governing body and its federation to share information and work toward keeping the sport accessible. Our activity will keep the sport robust for years to come.

At the professional (and international) level, the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has accelerated recent momentum, as does the push from new stars like Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.

The vital signs are far better than when Sports Illustrated wondered on May 9, 1994, "Is Tennis Dying?" -- a tennis ball serving as the dot under the question mark on the magazine's cover. Since then, the tennis industry galvanized and has stayed on the ball. The approach is uniquely unified, and encouraging results are already in:

* Tennis play occasions surpassed 600 million for the first time ever;
* In 2008, 6 million new players tried the game for the first time ever;
* Another 6 million former players returned to the game.

Access to tennis has never been higher. Racquets are available for less than $40 and can be matched to a variety of playing styles. A can of balls cost less than $3. But as the economy slumps, additional work is needed to keep the newfound blood pumping.

For example, despite the sales surge in junior tennis racquets, more ways are needed to encourage youth players in a graduated way. T-ball long has provided a step-by-step entry into baseball, using smaller balls and fields that grow with children and abilities. Soccer also has versions that let children grow into the game, using smaller equipment and encouraging small-sided games where teams play with four vs. four, six vs. six, or eight vs. eight games on less-than-adult sized fields until kids grasp the essentials needed for the full-sized sport.

In the United States, the recent introduction of QuickStart Tennis -- a kid format that spurred former European stars like Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters -- with appropriate sized courts and equipment will help children understand the sport with shorter racquets, lower-bouncing foam balls and shorter courts. For kids eight-and-under, a standard court's doubles lanes are used as baselines as the game is rotated 90 degrees and played along the width of a full size court.
QuickStart Tennis introduces the game to more kids in a way that inspires them and motivates them to hang on to the sport.

Beyond grade-school programs, potential players can find other opportunities. "Tennis Welcome Centers," for instances, are available at neighborhood parks, tennis centers, health clubs, resorts and high schools to introduce the sport, provide on-court workouts and create fun social networks.

The tennis industry keeps the sport in renewal. While new, organized programs won't contribute to the stream of competitive players for a few years, the larger consideration and the long term strategy is that the sport remains alive and well -- and easy to access. For a small investment, a new player can learn a sport that will serve him or her for a lifetime.






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